CLAREMONT BUNNINGS SAUSAGE SIZZLE

As I am sure you are aware, the sausage sizzle is a national institution. When I lived in Philadelphia, the only other Australian I knew longed for a sausage sizzle more than other food from home. It wasn’t Vegemite or Tim Tams or a meat pie. It was a sausage sizzle that was a comfort food, the kind of thing that recalled long days in the sun, living one’s best life, embracing all the things that are on offer in the lucky country when you are elsewhere. For me, I often countered with mum’s chicken curry or a good sausage roll or actually just decent bread (maybe a croissant for breakfast instead of cereal). But those days are distant memories, if only because I am here now and there are sausage sizzles on offer everywhere.

One thing my friend particularly loved was the slice of white bread rather than the hot dog roll that has now become commonplace. I tend to agree with him then (when we compared the sausage sizzle to the hot dog) and even now. The slice of bread tends to get the ratio right, allowing the sausage and onions and sauce to shine, being moister than American or IKEA versions. But then, you can get a good sausage sizzle where they use a bun. I had one just yesterday.

K and I have moved houses of late, and, in our new abode, we have a woodfired pizza oven. In preparing to use it, we needed to pick up some tools so off we went to Claremont Bunnings. It was the middle stop in our suburban Saturday, picking up furniture and doing the weekly shop. It fell right at lunchtime, and given that this is a food blog with the title written up top, you will get no prize for guessing that we stopped off at the BBQ out the front.


This week the UWA Indonesian Students Society had the tongs and they knew how to do it right. Onions cooked slow and low with a hint of char at the end, almost a confit rather than a burnt mess that is only crispy. These went on first. Then came the standard mystery bag but it was fresh on the grill rather than sitting there until it dried out, followed, of course, by dead horse that I applied myself. I have been to other sausage sizzles where they put onions on top and you are forever losing bits and pieces from the sides and ends. I have been to others where you do not get to self-sauce and they are stingy without purpose. And then there are others with old bread that dominates all of it, the proportions all wrong. This week it was a bun, but somehow it was thin and fresh, and it all made sense. This was a democracy sausage on any given weekend. The sun was out in the middle of winter, people were embracing the break in the rain, and the flavour packed goodie was a perfect way to support the community and to take a break from the duties we had in front of us. Hats off to the cooks. That is living your best life before you crank up your own kitchen for a home meal with friends over that stretches into the inky night.



SUBIACO FARMERS MARKET

There are farmers markets and there are farmers markets. The first kind is where you meet people with dirt under their nails. If you scratch the surface about the produce they can talk for hours on end with knowledge and insight; maybe telling you about why this variety has come on this year and this one hasn’t; informing you about the best way to look after it before you cook it (which really should be tonight). This is genuine farm to table. The second kind of farmers market is where there are people who have already prepared food – the kind where there are ten different types of olive oil at a stand; the ones with dips that range from a simple hummus to a pumpkin, feta, spinach number that contains more ingredients than you thought possible; the ones with all kinds of smoked meats ready for you to eat right then and there where they have samples pre-prepared waiting for you to snaffle as you walk past. These two types are, of course, ideal types of farmers market, for there is no pure one that is just like this. All farmers markets tend to have a mix of produce and finished product, of raw ingredients and ready-to-eat dishes, being greater than the sum of their parts. 

We have a very good one in Margaret River where we stop in for a sausage sizzle as soon as we arrive, putting our $3.50 towards a local charity be that Margaret River Karate or the local theatre company or the Lions Club. Then we do the rounds, picking up local meat, the best potatoes going, kale if we have raided the veggie patch a little too much since last week. This time though, we were up in Perth, seeing family and getting ready for the school semester. That meant we caught up with cousins at Subiaco Farmers Market. They live around the corner and not too far from us, and we joined them on a cloudy Saturday morning, the drizzle falling, making the dogs damp if not wet. There were dogs everywhere from puppies that looked like teddy bears to pugs impersonating wombats with their snuffling to border collies patiently waiting for treats. Some of the dogs, like some of the people, listened to the jazz band jangle their way through harder standards, not the easy muzak you used to get in elevators, but bebop and freeform like they were listening to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane at home, not only Louis Armstrong. Everyone got a coffee and we wandered round. As is our want, K and I got bratwurst, and the cousins got corn fritters with haloumi on top. 


We bought fresh pasta, and apples to make a pie with, walking past bakers with their cakes, tapas stands telling us to take some home, and butchers who had racks and racks of dry aged steaks behind them in refrigerated cases that looked like museum displays. And on we wandered, stopping to pick up a plant and watching the 30 members of SUFFA (Subiaco Ukulele Free for All) sing out Vance Joy’s ‘Riptide’. They were infectious, enthusiastic, joyous, making the sun with their voices while the drizzle continued to fall. And the dogs stood there and watched, nonchalant as they had been with the jazz, nonchalant as though the farmers market was no big deal at all.


MISS MAUD

When I was a child growing up, we used to visit Miss Maud’s at Floreat Forum. I would always order a ‘Tiny Tots And Not So Tiny’. From memory, it was a ham sandwich cut into triangles with world flags planted in it, potato crisps, fairy bread, a drink, and a small toy (say, a parachuting man or something like that). It was a treat for us, and, in my memory, Miss Maud was a special institution in a suburb nearby. I’ve always had fond memories of it. I still do.

Recently, K and I were walking past Miss Maud’s in Perth City. This is their flagship restaurant in the Murray Street location. It looks like some sort of Alpine Family Robinson getaway with soft lighting and maroon carpets out of place in some later century with its faux lead-light of Vikings and wooden outside. We passed it and K was intrigued. I went on to explain the historical importance of the chain and to express my nostalgia as well. We pledged to come back, if only because Perth is short of local institutions.

It took us a month or so before we got round to going to Miss Maud. We had brought it up with friends over lunch and they said they wanted to go too. One of them was from Perth, and, like me, had long and fond memories of the restaurant. His partner was from overseas, and had lived here for five years and always wanted to go. Miss Maud had caught her eye just like it had with K. It was unique and attractive in some idiosyncratic way. These friends were about to head off to New York to live for the next few years. Of course, they would be back every now and then, but Miss Maud seemed like the kind of place you could go for a celebratory last meal. It would be a place to say farewell, a place to remember Perth by as well. It was closing down too, so it seemed like a fitting tribute to make to this place.

It was Friday evening when we went, and, as always, the Swedish smorgasbord buffet was laid out before us. I was in trouble just by looking at it. I had been sick the day before with stomach pains and a feeling of flatness. The only thing I ate was a chicken and veggie noodle soup with plenty of ginger. In fact, it had been a shithouse week and I had been copping it for some bad writing. I deserved most of what came up, but some of the criticism went a little too far. But, thank god it was Friday and thank god I was at Miss Maud. I had a few items I didn’t think I could stomach but, there was a  (somewhat shitty) cornucopia on offer and I was up for it all.

Let’s begin where the food begins – I wanted the seafood and the cold cuts and the roasts and the cheese and the cakes and the drinks and the whole buffet in my mouth, all at once. I wanted it now, but from experience I knew that I had to pace myself. It would be better to be here for a long time, to go at it slow and steady, with some sort of method, rather than just piling it all on. I wondered if I should have a sample of everything there and then just focus in on what was best. That is my usual buffet tactic, but then you often had a bite of something that you knew was always going to be terrible. This all looked terrible, in the best possible way.

Here, I am reminded of a story my old supervisor used to tell when I was studying at the University of Pennsylvania. She was researching the CIA’s activities during the Second World War and how they had employed librarians to be spies who took a lot of archives from Europe when it looked like it was all going to burn overnight. She told me that the Americans were indiscriminate in what they took – sending back shipping containers full of documents that the Library of Congress is still going through to this very day. The British on the other hand only took what they thought was the best. They were selective in what they were going to save. We could assume there is something important about national character in this, a quantity and quality argument about the way to approach what is on offer. Australia often thinks of itself as a combination of America and Britain, and though I do not subscribe to that view, I do think there is something in approaching a buffet that learns from the two.

In remembering that now, I thought, right here, before me, I had better approach all that food with caution. It was not that I wanted the most of what was best, as though maximum quantity of top-most quality would make the best eating experience. It goes without saying that I did not want the opposite – minimal quantity with terrible quality, which might not have even been possible. Rather, it is that you learn what is a good amount to eat and what tastes good to you once you have to make your way through the archive, world, buffet as it is laid out before you. You simply make do with the possibility depending on where your nose leads and what your friends are interested in. And so I had to choose. Would it be prawns or oysters? Would it be ham or salami? Would it be Princess Cake or Black Forrest? Or would it be all of that?


I ate two oysters, three prawns, three slices of ham, two slices of salami, some pasta salad, some potato salad, four roast potatoes, two roast carrots, a spoonful of cauliflower cheese, two slices of roast lamb, two slices of beef brisket, a slice of Black Forest Cake, a slice of Princess Cake, a cup of Irish Breakfast tea, and a piece of garlic bread, in that order. It was all bad quality and very overpriced. The live keyboard player was having a go at it and the wait-staff were friendly. But, we could sense the reason why the place was closing down. Capitalism had won this round. 

The Princess Cake was the consolation prize. I remember it as being delicious and it still is. I was eating the past more than anything else. It was a moment where you thank the gods above and the ancestors past for putting this Swedish restaurant here to help introduce us to a world of food that touches the heart. I would not change that moment, not for the world if only because our friends were there. I will remember sharing this sweetness as I say bon voyage to them on their way to New York. They must know that they can return to eat with us anywhere, for now and forever. I'll miss those guys more than Princess Cake and all the buffets in America. Let’s eat together sooner rather than later.







MOON AFTER WATER

In his essay, ‘Moon Under Water’, George Orwell describes his perfect pub. I am not looking for the perfect pub but the most delicious meal where I live now. When I think about food, I have to think about ideas, stories, ingredients, context as well as taste (balance, uniqueness, flavour).

It is not only that food needs to be yummy, but that it also has to be compelling. That means it has to have a concept, has to have thinking behind it. We cannot theorise every meal as though Jacques Derrida was the first person to enjoy scrambled eggs. Yet some consideration and reflection should go into cooking and eating. It does not make immediate sense to assume that raclette matters in Sydney, or that ramen is best served on a 40 degrees day, unless it is chilled perhaps. 

The next part is that we can use it to tell a story. We need to have a good narrative so there is something to talk about – that might be a local yarn in the case of Paul Iskov or a tale of your family’s arrival in Australia but it could just be a retelling of how you battled the crowds to get the best bagels downtown.

From here, you need the right ingredients, which is to say ingredients that make sense in a family resemblance for your dishes. If you know you cannot get excellent uni, then work with what you can. This does not mean we forget what is unique or only forage or only go seasonal. It means that we can respect our ingredients by using them creatively. Sometimes what seems like a constraint can be liberating and from that we can make a whole new taste. Cooking with the ingredients in the pantry means that we get to invent dishes we cannot yet imagine. Sometimes that fails, but sometimes it works incredibly well.

One does not only need to deal with how the meal fits together, but to think about whether it is contextually appropriate. This is not only about pairing wine with cheese, but with the sunlight, the vista, the temperature, the weather, the climate, the people, the occasion, the frame of reference, with ecology and social relations.

And finally, we need to consider taste – what makes it yummy to us? What makes us want more now and into the future? For some people, that might mean they make it hot with chillies, others cannot let go of umami. But I do not mean specific flavours and personal preference. Instead, I mean how do these things sit in your mouth and stomach, how they feel right, what we can intuit even if we cannot quite say why.

From that, you need to balance the idea that your taste suits someone else as well. To make that happen, you need to know their allergies and how to empathise with their love of green jelly. Not everyone is a gourmand every minute of every day. We should avoid a misplaced peanut just like we should riff on someone’s favourite dish next time they come for dinner at our place.

Given that the focus of this blog has mainly been in Australia, it is worth pausing here to think of our place on this continent. With that, it might simply be enough to point out that there are arguments over identity and belonging every January 26th. I for one have been to Invasion Day Protests and to lamb barbeques in the same 24 hours. I understand that people are angry and sad, and not only Indigenous people but those who were forced to leave their homes from convict England and war torn Sudan. To say that does not flatten those differences. But, we have built a remarkable society and we need a day for everyone to embrace. We have made mistakes. And yet, we always get a chance to do what is right. We get tomorrow to make it better. We cannot change the date out of hollow symbolism or because we want to avoid talking about the past. Instead, it offers an opportunity to think about who we are and how we have come so very far.

We need a new date that celebrates something meaningful. To my mind, that day can be in support of a new social contract that leads to a new constitution, which represents a new type of body politic that could also include a universal bill of human rights and a treaty. I do not say this because I think politics has a place in the kitchen. I say this because I want to plan a new meal of celebration. Depending on when it was held would alter what I cooked. In Australia, we could do with a winter feast, a holiday in July so we could roast to our heart’s content while drinking the shiraz, stouts and whiskeys we have become so good at making.  Why not change the date to something we can all enjoy and get behind?

My perfect meal would happen down at Redgate. I would have been for a swim in the morning, read during the day, worked on some writing and settled into cooking for my family as the afternoon wore on.  On the menu could be saffron marron pie with bush tomato chutney with a salad of saltbush, marigold, spinach followed by a Kakadu plum compote and a cardamom crème Anglaise. Maybe the next year, we could have a kangaroo stew with turmeric rice and minty peas followed by a quandong trifle and lemon kulfi. And, the year after that, pulled mutton on sourdough and wattleseed bread with blue cheese, rocket and honey ants followed by gulab jamun with lemon myrtle pistachios and clotted cream. But those are only half formed ideas of something hearty, welcoming, and symbolic; something that connects me to history, place, and community. Other people will think of other, better things we can all share, together as friends, family, and strangers.

I might have got it wrong, but isn’t the point of food to be inclusive, respectful, and authentic? We can do that and move towards a better society on this continent. That is what makes something delicious. That is what makes my own ‘Moon Under Water’ where you can taste the love if not the secret. Everyone is welcome at my table, everyone can find something to eat that is tasty, everyone can sit down and speak about their day, and what they dream of doing. I do not think it is beyond us. With that, good luck with your own meals of celebration and I look forward to sharing a plate with you one day. 

WINE + FRIENDS


Every now and then, I find myself in a trough. Not the kind with pigs (even I have some standards). I mean a low where nothing tastes right, where everything you want to eat and even your cravings just aren’t enjoyable. You might be bored, you might be down, you might be exhausted. It happens to everyone at some point in time. For example, I was sick and tired of going to the movies, but then I saw Phantom Thread and my faith was restored. Thanks to three great scenes with toast, asparagus, and an omelette, I could go back to the world of film to say nothing of food. That is because I saw what is possible in art writ large.

I get that way with eating sometimes, and writing on it too, but then you have one meal that makes all the drudgery, all the grey days, all the blandness, fade away. You realise what hunger is, what you have missed, and why food matters. You get your appetite back. And so you write, because that satisfies you too, somewhere in the pit of your stomach.

I have been writing for as long as I can remember. It has always been part of my life and, in that way, it is like food. And there have been milestones along the way, moments in the writing life that are like memorable meals – from my first published poem to book launches. Writing can be good, it can help people and not only oneself. In that way,  I aspire to make some of my writing like Food Not Bombs, where I used to volunteer. Helping others helps you too, but sometimes it goes the other way. Sometimes you need mates to pick you up off the floor, and those people matter a lot.

When I was homesick, a long time friend and I cooked a Peking duck in Cambridge where I was spending the week. In a common room at Kings College we marinated, steamed then fried a whole bird, going to great lengths to serve it with buns and greens smothered in hoi sin sauce. He has been with me at other places, for other meals, from spaghetti carbonara in the suburbs of our youth to a Creole degustation in New Orleans, but this duck takes the cake for when you needed to feel okay. The world is a big place, an infinite place with plenty of suffering, but the truth of community and food, the pleasure and joy of art, nature and people, helps one get through.

This feeling is particularly acute during the holidays if you are away from home, family and tradition. At Christmas last year, K and I spent the day in New York - walking through Central Park, then down to watch people ice-skate, but it was a sumptuous Szechuan feast that made me happy to be where I was. While we were dining, I did not think of my family back in Australia even though I care very much for them and wanted to know how they were spending the day. By all reports, the ham was glazed to perfection, the turkey moist, the trifle sweet and sour in equal measure, the pudding moreish, and the wine, beer, spirits flowing over lunch and dinner. The day after, I became quite ill with a heavy cold. What made me feel much better was a present my parents had sent us. It was a voucher to an Upper West Side institution – Zabar’s, which is the world’s greatest deli. It is a cornucopia of delights – olives, cheese, baked goods, fresh pasta, ten types of smoked salmon, all kinds of wonderful treats. And for us, in the week after Christmas away from home, it was a voucher that seemed immeasurably generous. We got pot roasts, pies, latkes, knishes, blintzes, bagels delivered to our door while the snow fell outside. We holed up that week, eating those prepared meals, watching re-runs of old TV on Netflix.

Of course, it is not always like this – sometimes you feel sick eating a whole tub of ice-cream to stop you from crying; at other times, meals that are meant to be excellent can end up disappointing; and then there are those times when food just doesn’t matter, and you are so bored that nothing helps, not even chicken soup for the soul. But, it all comes to pass. Life gets better. We get better. The history of the world is with us and to be reminded of that in every mouthful helps us get up in the morning and go on with living.

I needed a little help recently. I was missing friends and there was no easy answer – they are scattered all over the world and I wanted to see people who had not come to our wedding. That was a fantastic day – sunny and warm, which is so lucky to have in Melbourne.  We ate share plates of beetroot and goat’s cheese, chervil salad with Moreton bay bugs, roast lamb, a cheese course, petit fours. The wine was in abundance, the view captivating and everyone was happy to have a long lunch celebrating. Now, a few months later it was winter and we were away from our friends, adjusting to a new reality. To be sure, I was happy, deeply content in a way I had not felt before, but K was heading off to Europe for work and the darkness of winter were getting longer. And then, a mate, just by chance, happened to be heading over to Western Australia. Could he stay for a few days at Redgate? I said, of course, I would love to host.

When people visit us here, we often take them on a tour – caves, forest, beach. And the natural attractions are wonderful, but we are also very proud of the vineyards in the region. When we were kids, we used to go through the bush to the one just behind us, eating grapes and chasing sheep in paddocks on the way. At other times, we went to concerts a few clicks away at Leeuwin Estate, where we have seen everything from opera to folk to pop to rock to blues on a grassy knoll overlooking gum trees that sway with the music.

My friends who were visiting were keen to have lunch out and I took them to my favourite winery, Vasse Felix, which has the oldest vines in the area. The dining room is austere and minimal without being cold or uninviting. The wood panelling is beautifully crafted from local trees endemic to the region and there is a fireplace in the middle of the room that makes the place warm. It is homely and welcoming. Wineries have, of course, become big business as Australia has grown wealthier and concerned with food and beverages. What I get from them is a sense of how to entertain, how to have a good time and relax in a country setting. They are very different from those in Stellenbosch, Napa and across France, which each have their own culture and sensibility. Here, if there is one word to describe that difference, it is sunnier. It is a little lighter, a little brighter, with the grapes drinking in the sun and being a robust contribution to flavour.

On the menu at Vasse, one is likely to read a list of ingredients – emu, yolk, cherry, cornichon; beef, radish, shimeji, marrow; dhufish, pumpkin, pipis, peach. And these are prepared in different ways – sous vide, braised, roast, raw, pan fried, pickled, foamed. What it suggests is openness and an appreciation of the upper middle register of dining out in Australia. This is not an over the top degustation where you are over it by the twenty-second course. Nor is it pub grub that fills you up. This is bourgeois eating, which tastes just as good as the very best yet satisfies like a comfort dish. It finds the path in between, not as a hybrid, as a fusion, but as a synthesis. It learns from both sides and encourages good eating over long lunches that is accentuated by the wine that is grown right here, in terroir you can see and walk through.

This particular time with my friends, who were only visiting for a short time, I thought about how lucky I was that I could live here and show it off. We could participate in a good life, talk and relax, stretch and be inspired to go on with our work precisely because we have community. That feeling of community is the balm to being down, to being in the trough, to not wanting to go on. I have found this with him on many an occasion, due largely to a weekly tennis match we played when we lived in the same city.

That tennis match was a study in bringing people together and while we came for the sport, we also stayed there because we could have a beer and a feed at the club each week. It was always something cheap and simple – a salad, a baked potato, a sausage in white bread. But it gave us points of connection that sustain you, just like food does when you feel like you cannot go on. And he had brought that with him to Western Australia in mid-winter. We walked along the headland, we stoked the fire, we ate very well, we drank whiskey, and I forgot about the dark days, the unsettling dreams, the shadows that everyone has no matter their persuasion. It felt like summer was here and all because you have mates that you can spend time with. And, we joked about who would win the trophy next time we played our own competition – Business vs Poets. I, being on the right side of history, assured him that the Poets would regain the trophy, restoring it to its rightful owners. He laughed, but when he left I knew that I could happily go back to the garden, to swimming in the ocean, to making the fire. And that small visit repaid my faith in eating, cooking and sharing with people who matter.


Food is, of course, a site of emotion – as a creative expression, as a ritual that brings people together, as a tonic for ill. It is not without its pitfalls from guilt to shame to addiction, but in a healthy relationship it can help us find balance, pleasure, strength. And that is one of the great possibilities that comes with visiting wineries, or making a picnic, or getting food delivered to you in a blizzard. It allows us to connect with each other and ourselves in such a way that we can go on. That is what it means to get out of the trough by smelling the salts, the rose and the cheese.